By Kathryn Hunter

Kermit was 2 years old when he was diagnosed with autism. As parents, we were devastated that our baby was not “normal”. My husband withdrew into depression and I buried myself in books and the internet searching for any and all information about the disorder. I knew nothing about autism. I wanted to know it all. I wanted to know how to best help my son. I wanted to understand his mind. I wanted answers.

I never found the answers that I was looking for. I found plenty of information, but it turns out that all autistic children are different and the textbook definition rarely describes your child. While researching the internet, I came across the website for the National Autism Association. They had a link for other therapy services. I clicked on it. It brought up service animals. I was floored. I always thought service animals were for the deaf and blind. But no, they are for more than that. I emailed the contact and we hit a dead end when we found out it was in Ohio and would take traveling there for a face to face interview. Plus it cost 2000 dollars and we had to spend two weeks there at our own expense. So I figured we were not going any further.

While in the Families Together office in Garden City, I mentioned this to Laurie Gerber and she handed me a brochure for KSDS in Derby. I filled out the application and got a reply rather quickly. They did not do autism dogs, but they gave me another name, Care Inc. of Concordia Kansas. I contacted them and was sent an application. I filled out the application, obtained the necessary medical documents and mailed it back. I was prepared to be told ?No? yet again. After waiting approximately a month, I called them asking if they had gotten his application. They said that they had and that he was on the waiting list. They wanted to wait until he was 6, so he would be more likely to participate in the training. He was 3 at the time, so we had him on a waiting list. It was a start.

Two weeks after his 6th birthday, I called Cares Inc and asked them about his standing on the list. They told me that he would get his dog in June or August. They sent me an estimate of charges, costs and a packet about what we needed to bring.

We had a tentative date. We were getting the dog this summer. But now the problem was money. We had to spend a week in Concordia on our dime. We had to pay 750 dollars to Cares Inc. Gas was sky high. I approached a lady at our church and the ball took off. Our church, Trinity Lutheran in Garden City, held two fundraisers that netted 4000 dollars. With the help of Providence and the advice of Families Together, we were able to secure the money we needed.

At the beginning of June we got our date which was August 4th. The summer appeared to drag. As a mother, I was a nervous wreck. What if the dog did not work? What if Kermit hated her? What if? Finally, it was time to go. With a wonderful send-off from our church, we began the first leg in Kermit’s journey. When we arrived on the first day at training, Kermit was thinking that he was getting a yellow lab. He patiently waited as dog after dog came in and was given to someone else. Finally they came in with Dara, a small black Lab. His eyes lit up like a Christmas tree.

We spent a week in Concordia going through training. The dog was fully trained, but now we had to be trained. We had to learn 52 commands. We had learn about grooming, medical treatment, laws and lawsuits. They wanted to prepare us for the worse case scenario. Legally, Dara and Kermit can go anywhere the public is allowed. But someone will probably try to stop them at some point. Kermit is working on bonding with Dara. At first I wondered if he would. Now he sleeps next to her kennel. He won’t go to bed until she does. If he cries she washes his tears away. Eventually Dara will go to school with Kermit. I think that will be a big help for him. We are taking it slowly so that they can thoroughly bond. He needs to be able to give her the commands and she needs to mind him.

Kermit has had quite a journey. He has gone from non-verbal to speaking at a 3 year old level. He is currently overcoming some sensory issues. He has learned to read and write so well that they moved him to 1st grade this fall instead of keeping him in Kindergarten another year.

After all of the research that I have done, all of the people that I have talked to, all of the conferences I have attended, and all of the training that I have received, no one has taught me as much about autism as my son. Not only has he taught me about autism, but he has taught me compassion for all children and adults with disabilities. I no longer stare when I see a wheelchair. I don’t make rude comments at tantrums – you never know, it might be a meltdown. I have become very good at explaining and educating anyone who asks. Just ask and I will tell you what I know. Parents know more than any doctor.